Recognizing and Responding to Colic

Approximately 25 percent of babies experience colic — a condition that causes babies to cry inconsolably for at least three hours a day at least three days a week. Keep in mind that this is the minimum amount of crying for a diagnosis; some babies cry for hours on end with no apparent reason — they simply will not stop.

If your baby has colic, he may cry, scream, and kick for hours. He may arch his back and tighten his stomach. He seems like he is in a lot of pain, and you can't find the cause of it. Needless to say, colic is stressful for the whole family.

The best news is that most cases of colic disappear somewhere around 3 to 4 months of age. Hang in there!

Looking for causes of colic

The truth is that no one really knows what causes colic. Following are some common theories:

  • An immature digestive system
  • Emotional stress
  • An immature nervous system
  • Food allergies — for example, if a breastfeeding mother is drinking cow's milk and eating dairy products, or if an infant is drinking formula (either milk- or soy-based)
  • Your baby's temperament
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) — a condition that affects babies and adults alike and is commonly called reflux

Massaging to ease colic

Regular abdominal massage may lower the frequency and severity of your baby's colic episodes. (Always use strokes in a clockwise direction on the abdomen. And be sure to use a little pressure to avoid the tickle response!) Massage can help you stimulate your baby's colon and push gas and stool through the intestinal tract.

Here are some additional massage, exercise, and holding techniques you can use during a colic attack:

  • Hold your baby in a football hold. Place your baby lying face down with his belly on your forearm and his head near your elbow. Put pressure on his belly with your arm and hand (visualize how a football player cradles his football). Rub his sacrum with your other hand.
  • Place your baby on his back, and bring both knees to his chest by bending his legs. Your hands are on the outside of your baby's knees. Hold his knees on his chest for a few seconds.
    You can also do this technique one leg at a time.
  • Follow the instructions in the previous bullet and, with both legs together, circle your baby's knees clockwise (in the direction of the colon).

Offering your baby additional relief

Here are some other ways that you can try to comfort your baby during an episode of colic:

  • Wear your baby in a sling.
  • Run the vacuum.
  • Swaddle your baby.
  • Take your baby for a ride in the car.
  • Use an infant swing or a baby motion bed.
  • Take a warm bath with your baby.
  • Try feeding your baby more slowly (and possibly less) during each feeding.

Try to alternate comfort measures. For example, you may wear your baby in a sling for a while, then take a warm bath together, and then go for a ride in the car.

Colic can be very stressful, but many experts don't recommend letting your baby cry it out. If you have tried everything you can think of to calm him and your baby is still crying, simply hold him and speak soothingly throughout the episode. If your frustration level has peaked, ask your partner, your friends, and your family for help. Being held while crying is a much different and better experience for a baby than being left alone in a crib.

What's the risk of letting your baby cry it out? Your baby will not learn important self-soothing skills, and unfortunately he may learn that his needs will not be met and his environment is not safe. He may also learn to shut down his feelings.

No matter how frustrated you may get, do not ever shake your baby. A baby can die or suffer permanent brain damage after being shaken. If you are overwhelmed and start to feel yourself getting angry at your baby, place him in a safe place (such as his crib or playpen) and go into another room to give yourself time to calm down.

Easing your own stress

Colic is most definitely a family affair. For this reason, here are some suggestions on how to cope so the stress doesn't overwhelm you:

  • Take a break. Find a way to spend at least an hour away from your baby each day.
  • Get support. Locate other parents of colicky babies — perhaps through La Leche League meetings, Mommy and Me classes, or other local groups that bring new parents together. If you don't know where to look for this type of organization, contact the hospital where you delivered your baby and ask for help finding a support group.
  • If you're not able to find a support group that meets your needs, at least find one person you can share your feelings of frustration with.
  • Let someone give you a massage!
  • Remind yourself not to take your baby's crying personally — it is absolutely not a reflection of your parenting abilities.
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